June 24, 1482 cont’d
The party advanced into the darkness, killing several of the twig creatures. Soon, Belak called out to them, offering to accept their surrender and supplication to the tree. The heroes declined, and battle was truly joined. The group defeated numerous twig blights, then next slew the reanimated forms of Ser Brayford and Sharwyn Koldricsson. The fight was long and brutal, but at the end, Belak the Outcast lay dead.
The party discovered Belak’s small library, a mix of journals, published works, and profane tombs of unholy knowledge. The journals went into the group’s bag of holding, while the evil books were stacked beneath the tree alongside Belak, Ser Brayford, and Sharwyn’s bodies as kindling. The group could feel the malevolent presence of the tree while they lit the fire, and watched as the flames burned the tree down to a smoldering stump over the next few hours.
Also found were two of the mysterious fruit, one in an ornate box in the style they have seen before, the other an almost identical case but with purple highlights.
Belak’s diaries made clear – there are two kinds of fruit, “clean” and “infected”. Clean fruit carry a regenerative effect of the vampiric nature of the tree. Belak tried but failed to see if there were any other effects from the clean fruit, but mused at length about the possibilities of being influenced by the tree “just more subtly”. He also wondered what will happen to anyone who’s eaten a fruit if the tree were to suffer a “true death”.
The people of Oakhurst get clean fruit – the goblins knew to steal the clean ones – while high ranking cult members – Frulam, Dral, and Rezmir – ate infected fruit. Almost everyone in Ossington got clean fruit, but several were given infected fruits during early testing – the three that were made examples of, and one last survivor – Fen the Elder.
From a quick scan of the journals, it was clear the cult served a threefold purpose – to destabilize the region, to use the loot to fund an invasion from the Fells, and to test the infected fruit. Belak crowed in delight at news that the Sparrow watched Auberon Lycus eat an infected fruit. A very recent entry complains that the effects must have been too much for the old man, the parasite must have killed him. The final entry cryptically states that at least Haspar has “tasted of the tree as well.” He is noted as having eaten a fruit, but not which type – “Haspar is all but decided as the new First, so plans continue unabated.”
Another volume revealed more details about the Cult of the Dragon. The “leaders” of the Cult perform a ritual called “Submission to the Wyrm”, where an infected fruit is eaten. The parasite, called an Embyr, will nest in the stomach, growing slowly over time.
As an act of sacrifice, the cultist can recite a trigger phrase in Draconic, which causes the Embyr to grow rapidly and burst forth, violently emerging from the host. Premature Embyr appear as misshapen, three-foot long, wingless chromatic lizards – disturbingly malformed monsters half snake, half dragon. Meanwhile, the host bodies’ head splits apart, quivering razor-tipped tentacles emerge, and the body animates and attacks any targets within range. If not killed, the body, called a Revenake, dies after a few minutes – the Embyr after an hour.
Those “Submitted to the Wyrm” once a day vomit up a jelly-like mass of chromatic eggs. If contained and fed fresh blood, these will grow to a squad of kobold wyrmclaws suicidally loyal to the host.
If the Embyr survives initial gestation, the host will start to grow weak and sickly. They will be near death as the Embyr completely takes over their bodies, with all the knowledge and memories of the host. If all goes well, the host makes a recovery from illness, but finds themselves a slave to the will of Gulthias.
Another journal tells of Belak’s discovery of the tree. Belak, an outcast Snake clan druid became fascinated with the tree, and discovered that some of its fruit could heal the sick (and maybe even raise the dead), but other fruit also warped and twisted its victim, enslaving them to the will of the tree and its caretaker.
Belak researched a method for “planting” new trees, but succeeded only in creating the twig blights. Eventually, a plan began to form – figure out how to tell the fruit apart, and get the second “infected” kind of fruit to as many people in power as possible, enslave them to his cause, and return the Snake clan to its rightful place.
He brought in a powerful Tiso monk named Hanira Redfall (also a Snake) to help him determine how to tell the fruit apart. What they discovered is that some fruit were infested with a small graveworm from the earth beneath the tree. These “infected” fruit were the true power of the tree – those that survived consuming the infected fruit would come under control of the tree and its caretaker.
They needed someone to help distribute the fruit, so Belak and Redfall brought in Jozan “The Sparrow” Lostcaller, a renowned bard who often plays for the well-to-do and has connections in high society. The Sparrow was secretly known to be an inhuman creature not of this world, but no one knew his true motivations. Nevertheless, he agreed to join the conspiracy.
With an overabundance of new information, much discussion took place. The wounded and weary party retreated to the half-room at the edge of the cavern and rested, watching the tree burn in the distance.